A stiff March wind from the Midwest swept down through Missouri before dropping over the lip of Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains into the river. Each night, transparent layers of ice crusted the serpentine river but melted during the day as the pale sun reached its zenith. Now at mid-afternoon a gunpowder gray sky hung over the land, and the hoarse barking of a dog broke the utter stillness of the woods.
A fat gray possum scurried along the riverbank, headed for a large chinquapin oak. But mortality caught up with him as a huge red hound dashed out of the woods and, without breaking stride, opened his enormous jaws and clamped them down on the possum’s neck. One quick shake of the dog’s head, and the neck broke with a distinct snap. The dog dropped the limp body and sat down, his jaws open, his pink tongue lolling out as he panted.
Two boys emerged from the woods, and the shorter one yelped, “Look at that, Brodie! Ol’ Anthony Wayne done caught our dinner for us!”
The taller of the two did not speak but came and stood beside the dog and the dead possum. At fourteen, Brodie Hardin stood an inch over six feet and was as lean as an oak sapling. His auburn hair poked out from under his limp black felt hat, and his light green eyes glowed with pleasure as he leaned down, roughly caressing the dog’s head. “You done good, Anthony Wayne—real good!” He stood for a moment, watching as the smaller boy nudged at the possum’s fat carcass with his toe, then shook his head. “It’s gonna be a pain to carry this varmint to the house, Clinton. He must weigh at least twenty-five pounds.”
A stubborn expression settled on Clinton Hardin’s face. He was ten years old, stocky and strong with brown hair, brown eyes, and a stubborn cast to his lips. “You carry him, Brodie, and I’ll take the gun. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see a deer.”
“Shucks, you couldn’t hit a deer if I tied him down!”
Clinton continued to squabble with his older brother, but finally Brodie groaned, “Clinton, you’d argue with a rock. We’ll tie this here possum’s feet together and put a stick between them and tote him home like that, but I’m carryin’ the gun.
Ignoring Clinton’s protests, Brodie selected a sapling and, with some effort, cut down with his pocketknife. After trimming off the branches and tying the possum’s feet with string from his pocket, he centered the animal on the pole and nodded. “I’ll go in front in case some more game comes along.”
“No, I’m going in front!”
“All right, just get moving.” The two lifted their catch, with Brodie carefully pointing the double-barreled shotgun at the ground as they walked along. He was silent, but Clinton, never at a loss for words, commented on what a sorry hunting trip it had been. Brodie inwardly agreed, for he had hoped for a deer or even a coon. He hated the taste of possum but at least it was better than going back empty-handed.
Within twenty minutes Clinton was already complaining about the sapling cutting into his shoulder. Brodie ignored him for as long as he could, then said impatiently, “All right, I’m tired of listening to you yap! You’d talk the legs off a stove! I’ll tote the durn old possum myself.” Dropping his end of the stick, he stepped back, allowing the possum to slide off. He’d thrown the animal over his left shoulder, keeping his right free for the shotgun, when he heard a sharp buzzing sound.
“Snake, Brodie!” Clinton yelled.
Brodie’s flesh seem to turn to stone, but his mind was racing. He heard the rattle on his right. Jumping to his left, he frantically tried to aim his shotgun in the direction of the buzzing. As he fell to one side, he caught a glimpse of a gray blur—a movement so fast his eyes could scarcely take it in. He felt a bump against his right show, and fear coursed through him from his toes to the top of his head.